When Israel’s founding fathers removed by force the native Palestinian Arab population living where they intended to establish their state, they murdered or displaced more than 80% of that population.
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This act of ethnic cleansing — to borrow one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly found phrases — was given a name in Arabic: the Nakba, or catastrophe. The Palestinian Muslims, Druze and Christians who remained in what became Israel have been, and are today, approximately 20% of the population. These are indigenous Palestinians and their descendants, who have had Israeli citizenship imposed upon them.
'48ers, Palestinian Arabs, 'insiders' – just not 'Israeli Arabs'
For over half a century, Israel has preferred the designation Israeli Arabs, focusing on their Israeliness and attempting to obliterate any trace of Palestinian from their identity. Among Palestinians in exile or the West Bank, they’re referred to as ‘48ers, referring to the year of the Nakba, or as those living “on the inside,” meaning inside the 1949 armistice line, better known as the Green Line. Now, a new cohort of Palestinian thinkers inside Israel writing 68 years after the Nakba reaffirm that they are not just Arabs, but Palestinian Arabs, and that while they may be “in Israel,” they are not Israel’s: they are their own masters.
These Palestinian citizens of Israel are its Achilles’ heel; they refuse to become Zionists, refuse to leave Israel, and refuse to vanish into thin air. And, increasingly, they are refusing to remain a silent, or passive, player.
This increasingly assertive minority in Israel spoke out in a new think tank report published this month by The Palestinian Arab Citizens in Israel hosted by the Oxford Research Group and supported by the I'LAM Arab Center for Media Freedom Development and Research in Nazareth and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. [Full disclosure: While completely independent, this project is also a sister project of the Palestine Strategy Group, of which I’m a secretariat member.]
Four futures for Palestinians in Israel, from chaos to a binational state
The report is unequivocal about the need for the state of Israel to wholly accept these Palestinian citizens as full and equal citizens. Israeli Jewish citizens who think they have quashed any impetus for collective action by their Palestinian neighbors in Israel would be well advised to read, not just this report in its entirety, but also the biographies of those responsible for its production. Some of the sharpest political and academic minds in Israel are exposing the historical misjudgments and internal contradictions in the Israeli state and offering a way out, if anyone is interested in pursuing it.
The report highlights three possible scenarios – four futures for the Palestinian citizens of Israel and their relationship with the State of Israel.
Scenario 1 assumes the continuation of the status quo, which could proceed along two different paths: Israel could embark on attempting to better the quality of life of its Palestinian citizens, as individuals, without addressing the core political or collective issues, or could simply attempt to perpetuate the status quo, without the emergence of a Palestinian state, a combination that would inevitably become less status quo and more a continuous downward spiral.
Scenario 2 envisions chaos on Israel’s borders as regional Islamic fundamentalism in bordering states spills over into Israel, provoking redeployment of the Israeli military and greater potential instability.
Scenario 3 assumes the creation of an independent Palestinian state (as defined by the UN General Assembly Resolution passed on November 29, 2012) living side by side with Israel.
And scenario 4 projects Israel’s transition into a binational state, in effect a one-state solution, but with a very different social contract with Jewish Israelis: one that ensures constitutional equality between Jews and Arabs and re-envisions all of the state’s trappings, such as the flag, national anthem, etc.
Recognizing the collective rights of Palestinians in Israel
But in parallel to these high-level strategic scenarios, Palestinian citizens in Israel need tangible goals.
In the short-medium term (five- to ten-years) framing the aspirations of the collective, building and upgrading the institutional infrastructure of the legitimate minority status of Palestinians in Israel based on pluralism, democracy and equality. Specifically, the umbrella representative organizations – the Higher Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel and the National Committee of the Heads of Arab Localities – should be reformed and new associations should be considered.
A ten- to twenty-year horizon focuses on individual rights and equal opportunities in addition to the attainment of recognition as a collective. This includes efforts to revitalize existing representative bodies and create new ones to work toward achieving formal recognition at all levels of government with the aim of securing first-class citizenship rights and economic and development rights, as well as addressing the various state planning bodies.
And finally looking forward twenty to forty years: the achievement of a historic reconciliation between the two peoples in historical Palestine as part of reconciliation between the Jewish community and the Palestinians alone, or also with the peoples and countries of the wider region.
Palestinians: Accept pluralism. Israelis: Right historical injustice
Such charting of a joint future is difficult to envision today because of the vast ideological diversity with the Palestinian community, with some calling for no separation between religion and state and others calling for total separation. This major disparity in ideologies is a clear potential weakness: the report calls for the universal acceptance of pluralism as the necessary foundation on which to build, with all stakeholders accepted as part of a shared future. The report notes likewise that the need for the state to be a state for all its citizens must be a given in any future scenario.
It is true that ending the nearly 50-year-old Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, although imperative, will not bring total peace to Israel. What could finally accord Israel a normal place among nations, for the first time ever, is for it to come to terms with its history of injustice.
That means acknowledging its role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee community, taking restorative efforts to right that wrong, and finally accepting its Palestinian citizens as full and equal civic partners in theory and in practice.
Sam Bahour is a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network; Chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy; Co-editor of HOMELAND: Oral History of Palestine and Palestinians (Olive Branch Press). He blogs at www.epalestine.com. @SamBahour